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Unlocking The Secrets Of SARS

Unlocking The Secrets Of SARSTufts alumnus Jonathan Epstein teams up with scientists from around the world to determine the origin of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

No. Grafton, Mass. [10.06.05] A group of international scientists, including Tufts graduate Jonathan Epstein, has found the origin of severe acute respiratory syndrome, better known as SARS. The researchers, whose specialties range from veterinary medicine to epidemiology, have determined that a bat is to blame for spread of the highly contagious and sometimes deadly virus that moved like wildfire through dozens of countries and infected thousands of people in 2002.

"We can now conclusively say that we know the origin of SARS, and...the virus was transmitted from animals to people, Peter Daszak, the executive director of the Consortium for Conservation Medicine (CCM), said, according to a report in Grist magazine.

Epstein and Daszak work together at CCM, a New York-based group of five scientific research organizations, including the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. The two were among several authors of a study that was published Sept. 29 in the journal Science indicating that SARS was likely transmitted via the horseshoe bat, which is eaten and used for medicinal purposes in China.

Using data collected from around the world, Epstein, who earned degrees in veterinary medicine and public health from Tufts in 2002, and the research team narrowed in on bats.

The senior research scientist said the breakthrough wouldn't have been possible without the collaboration of experts from a variety of fields.

"This was a real team effort, and the sum of people's knowledge is what made [the discovery] possible," Epstein told Grist.

In light of the group's findings, Daszak cautioned that "the Chinese must ‘cut down the use of this bat for food and medicine,'" according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal reported that scientists originally believed weasel-like animals, or civets, spread SARS to people because the virus was found in civets being sold in marketplaces. Those living in the wild or on farms, however, didn't seem to carry the virus, leaving scientists uncertain as to whether or not civets were the original hosts of the virus.

"In September, scientists reported the discovery of a SARS-like virus in Hong Kong bats," according to the Journal. "The latest [CCM] study amplifies that finding and strongly indicates that the original SARS host was the horseshoe bat."

The newspaper reported that Daszak's group "tested more than 400 bats, representing nine different species, from four locations in China." The Consortium's research indicated that the bats' virus samples were 92-94 percent genetically similar to the SARS virus that infected people, according to the Journal.

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